Eugene O’Growney, Irish priest, scholar, and a key figure in the Gaelic revival of the late 19th century, dies in Los Angeles, California, on October 18, 1899. He was born at Ballyfallon, Athboy, County Meath, on August 25, 1863.
The Irish language has largely retreated from Meath when O’Growney is born, and neither of his parents speak it. He becomes interested in the language when he chances upon the Irish lessons in the nationalist newspaper Young Ireland. He has help at first from a few old people who speak the language, and while at Maynooth, where he continues his studies for the priesthood. He spends his holidays in Irish-speaking areas in the north, west, and south. He gets to know the Aran Islands and writes about them in the bilingual Gaelic Journal (Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge). He is ordained in 1888. His proficiency in the language leads him to be appointed in the re-established Chair of Irish at Maynooth in 1891. He serves as editor of the Gaelic Journal between 1894 and 1899 and during his tenure ensures that more material is published in Irish.
For O’Growney, language, nationality, and religion are closely linked. In 1890, writing in the Irish Ecclesiastical Review, he describes literature in Irish as “the most Catholic literature in the world.” He is aware, however, of its other aspects, adding that “even if Irish were to perish as a spoken language, it would remain valuable from the pure literature point of view.”
O’Growney’s Simple Lessons in Irish, first published in the newspaper the Weekly Freeman, prove so popular that they are published in booklet form. There are five books in the series and, by 1903, 320,000 copies have been sold.
In 1894, failing health causes him to go to Arizona and California, where he dies in Los Angeles in 1899. Some years later, with the aid of Irish sympathisers in the United States, his body is brought back to Ireland.
His funeral, held on September 26, 1903 at the Catholic Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, is attended by 6,000 people, including members of the trade guilds, clerics, politicians, members of the nationalist Gaelic Athletic Association, and students. Eugene O’Growney is buried at Maynooth.